Mo Cowan: A vote for students

This op-ed originally appeared in CommonWealth Magazine.

AT THE OUTSET, I make two admissions: I am not a fan of making public policy via ballot initiative and my children currently are enrolled in private, independent schools. I suppose I should make a third admission: I am a Democrat who believes in public education and thinks teachers are the most put upon – and most important – group of professionals almost anywhere.

With that out of the way, let me tell you why I will vote “yes” on Question 2 and support lifting the charter school cap where it is most needed.

I will vote in favor of Question 2 because as a Democrat who believes in public education, thinks teachers are as important today as they ever have been, and who has the privilege of choice for my kids’ education, it currently is our best option to empower more families to choose the right public education for their children and for the rest of us to support innovation in education, the foundation upon which every innovative idea is built.

Political rhetoric has heated the debate, pitting teachers unions against private citizens. When we divide ourselves along such arguments, we lose sight of what is in the best interest of our students—and thus, the future of our state and nation. This is not a political question about picking a side; this is about investing Massachusetts dollars to close the socioeconomic gap and bring innovation into public education.

 

My family is fortunate and we have the choice of sending our kids to the local district schools or, if we are not convinced that this choice is best for our kids, we can choose private, independent schools. This choice was not available to my family and me when I was of school age. Instead, because of our financial circumstances and the absence of any other option, I attended my local district school in rural North Carolina. Like too many traditional district schools, mine was under-resourced and over-crowded.

Thankfully, these schools also were full of many dedicated teachers who did the best they could with the few resources they had. Unfortunately, they did not have time or capacity to give all of the kids all of the attention they deserved.

We have 32,000 students on the waiting list for public charter schools in the state. Of this number, 12,000 students are in Boston. This ballot question would give the state Board of Elementary and Secondary Education the ability to approve up to 12 new charter schools or charter school expansions a year, giving these students the public school opportunity they deserve.

As priority would go to the 25 percent of lowest performing school districts in the state and districts with significant charter school waiting lists, this initiative will greatly expand opportunity for economically disadvantaged students. By supporting these efforts, we have the chance to help close the socioeconomic gap at one the most critical stages for youth.

Study after study has shown large learning gains in Boston charter schools for black, Hispanic, low-income, and special education students, and English language learners in both math and reading. Every child deserves a chance to attend a better school, regardless of his or her background.

President Obama praised charter schools as “incubators of innovation,” something we need to see more of in the public school education system. Massachusetts has been a leader in public education for decades, boosting leading test scores, and college completion and graduation rates.

We can thank our charter schools for contributing to that success and need to further propel these students forward. By bringing innovation into the public school system, we bring high-quality educational options to a greater number of students. Furthermore, we hold ourselves accountable to families, as charter schools must close down if they underperform. In contrast, our public schools have not faced the consequences for underperforming—and we are now facing these consequences ourselves.

Critics will say that charter schools take funding away from traditional public schools but, in reality, the state reimburses traditional public schools for six years after students leave. This is unique to charter schools; districts do not get reimbursed for students who leave for vocational or agricultural schools. We do not rob our public schools of resources when we open charters. And we should not rob tens of thousands of students and families of opportunity by refusing to meet the need and demand for charters where they are most needed.

By investing in our children, we invest in our state, and thus, our future. I support this initiative because I believe in the public school system and I believe in students having a choice. This election, I hope you will join me in voting “yes” for our students.

Mo Cowan, a former US senator representing Massachusetts, is president & CEO of ML Strategies.